Let us pause for a moment as we hold in prayer words adapted
from the Iona community in Scotland:
Stay with us, O Christ,
since the night is far spent
and the day is coming;
kindle our hearts on the way,
that we may recognize you in the scriptures,
in the breaking of bread,
and in each other.
Our epistle reading from Paul’s letter to the early Christian church in Rome echoes the tone and themes of last week’s reading from Romans.
Paul emphasizes the essential importance of love as foundational for the building of Christian communities. Following Jesus’ commandment to “love one another”, and to “love your neighbour as yourself”, Paul extols the way of love. Love, according to Paul, is the measure of fidelity to Christ and the measure of faithful discipleship.
Paul would have known, very well, the story of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples when, after sharing a meal together, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. …By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35) In other words it’s not enough simply to profess faith in Christ. To be counted as a Christian one needs also to show, through words and action, one’s commitment to living the faith daily in interactions with others.
Enacting one’s ideals in community can be challenging at times. This was no less true in Paul’s day than it is in our day and age. The fact that Paul spends so much time, in his letters to the early Christian communities, outlining honourable behaviour and what is not acceptable behaviour indicates that he was responding to existing challenges which he sought to correct.
Paul says clearly that genuine love fulfills all religious commandments. Love he says, “does no wrong to a neighbour”; love
“is the fulfilling of the law.” With respect to who can be thought of as a neighbour, Jesus’ life gives the answer to that question. For Jesus everyone, friend and stranger alike, were neighbours. Everyone had a place at the table and were welcome to participate fully in all aspects of living in community. Jesus turned the customs and religious law of his culture upside down by eating with anyone regardless of race, gender, religion or economic status. He would even eat with people who were deemed to be “unclean” which shocked and angered the first century Jewish elite. Contemporary theologian, John Dominic Crossan, calls Jesus’ proclivity to eat with anyone and everyone, “radical table fellowship”. It is easy to see why Jesus was popular with marginalized people and generally unpopular with those who had power and status.
Throughout the centuries people have used a variety of ways to explain this inclusive approach to sharing a meal which is one of the central hallmarks of Christian community. Before the American Civil War, when African Americans were held in slavery, songs of freedom and justice were sung to give strength and encouragment for people to hope for a brighter day dawning. Some of these gospel songs speak of the “welcome table” where all are invited and welcome. This “welcome table” was, for those living without rights or freedom, a sign of God’s inclusive commonwealth which they longed to experience for themselves.
In our contemporary Christian context, the communion table is a visible sign of the welcome table. It’s importance is so central to our customs and beliefs that it is located front and centre in the chancel area of the church. As the celebrant for communion, no matter what changes in wording I make to the liturgy to reflect what is happening in the church year, one thing you will always hear me say is, “We are invited to the table of Jesus Christ where all are welcome and none are turned away.” This is also why we strive to be inclusive in the communion elements using both regular and gluten-free bread and grape juice rather than wine. We never know when we’ll have a guest who needs these special elements but we will be ready to welcome and include them when they arrive.
This leads me to reflect on the second portion of today’s reading from Romans. Paul makes an urgent appeal to his brothers and sisters in Christ reminding them that the time is coming for the world’s transformation and they need to be alert and active participants in its inception. When reading this passage it’s important to remember that Paul’s Christian contemporaries believed that Jesus was coming again in the flesh in their lifetime. His imminent arrival necessitated vigilance and exemplary behaviour. Paul uses compelling imagery when he says, “the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; let us live honourably as in the day…” (Romans 13:12-13a)
In the United Church of Canada, most of us don’t have an expectation of the second coming of Christ in the same way the early Christian communities did. Our theology generally reflects a belief in Christ’s presence in a tangible way, here and now, reflected in our worship, our actions, and in the face of friend or stranger. When I attended the 38th General Council of the United Church of Canada in 2003, I saw someone wearing a T-shirt that stated, “Jesus is coming – look busy!” In my own mind I changed the words to read, “Christ is with us – act like it!”
It is not always easy to see the face of Christ in others but sometimes we have experiences which remind us that the light of Christ, the light of God, is within everyone. I had such an experience during my theological education. I was in, Toronto studying at the Centre for Christian Studies, and I was feeling very unsettled and worried that I would be missing my daughter’s 18th birthday. I had been away frequently in the previous three years and had missed many other special occasions but I was feeling particularly upset that I hadn’t had time to find a special gift for Lisa before I went away. So, every chance I had I rushed out to look for the perfect gift for her. After one unsuccessful lunch-time shopping spree I was rushing back to the school and I noticed, out of the corner of my eye, that a streetperson was sitting on the sidewalk where I would soon pass. Normally, I am a patient and compassionate person but on this day I was filled with my own thoughts and worries and I was in a very grumpy mood. I was walking swiftly and was just walking past the man when I heard a voice say, “Hi sweetheart!”. I bristled at his familiarity but the surprise of hearing his voice caught me off guard and I hesitated a moment. In those few seconds of hesitation I had decided to ignore him and carry on when he said to me, “Don’t worry! Have a good weekend!”. At this point I was really off balance but still expected his next words to be about loose change. To my surprise he didn’t say anything else and didn’t indicate he wanted anything from me. Then a glorious smile radiated across his face. It was a glow that seemed to come from within and illuminate his whole being. I’d never experienced anything quite like it before but at that moment I had the profound feeling of looking into the face of Christ and of being blessed.
I think when Paul says, “put on the armour of light” it is this pure love-light, which shines from within, that he is speaking about. He also says, “let us live honourably as in the day.” This imagery of a new day dawning reminds me of another story:
A teacher once asked his students how they could tell when night had ended and day was on its way back. “Is it when you can see an animal in the distance, and can tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the teacher. “Is it when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig or a peach tree?” “No.” “Well then,” the students demanded, “when is it?” “It is when you look on the face of another human being and see that he or she is your brother or sister. Because if you cannot do that, then no matter what time it is, it is still night.”
In our community of faith we may not always recognize the face of Christ in our stories and in our lives. But, recognize him or not, Christ is present: in sacrament and prayer; in the songs and stories of our faith tradition; in the sharing of our own stories of faith; in the abundance and challenges of life in community; and in the simple ways in which we respond with faith and love to each other, to the strangers in our midst, and to our world.
With this in mind I’ll close with a Celtic Blessing:
May the Christ who walks on wounded feet
walk with you on the road.
May the Christ who serves with wounded hands
stretch out your hands to serve.
May the Christ who loves with a wounded heart
open your hearts to love.
May you see the face of Christ in everyone you meet,
and may everyone you meet
see the face of Christ in you.
(Traditional Celtic Prayer, Voices United # 349)
May it be so, for us, this day and always.
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